Unconditional Love

That’s what a woman I know said, years ago, when I mentioned how upset I was to have lost a very dear cat.
“Oh yes, pets. Unconditional love and all that.”

Since I still remember the discussion now, decades later, clearly the rather dismissive remark disturbed me.
In part, because I respected her, it prompted self-reflection.
But the words never really quite seemed to fit my feelings, so it has rested in my memory as an unsolved problem.

Mulling it over more recently, I realized what the problem is.
It seems to me that a person who lives with and cares for pets does not do so expecting to receive unconditional love from them.
It just does not fit my experience
I can’t think of any of the bloggers I follow, most of whom often write about their beloved animals, who seems to be reveling in the pet’s boundless and uncritical affection.

I mean, sure they like us, perhaps even love us, but that isn’t really the focus of most of our attention.
Instead we joke about disapproving bunnies, and the unrealistic expectations of our felines.
And we discuss things like the new window seat we’ve installed for them, the discovery of a previously unknown cat intoxicant, the beret that matches their eyes….
Ad infinitum, all about the lengths that we happily go to in trying to give them the best lives possible.

Someone here is receiving unconditional love, but it isn’t the human partner in the relationship.
Instead, the bunnies, and cats, and horses, and hedgehogs – you name it – are the ones getting the unconditional love.
If human roommates were peeing on the floors, chewing on the sofas, or unexpectedly drawing blood, they would be Out of Here.
With our pets, though, we instead agonize over how to reshape the world to somehow adapt it better to their needs.
The non-human partners in these relationships are experiencing unconditional love, but what are the humans getting out of it?
What we gain from these relationships is the opportunity to provide our animals with our unconditional love.
And I think that’s a pretty fine thing that we get to do, and a wonderful gift that they give to us in allowing us to experience in our efforts to care for them.

And while I’ll put up with a fair amount of feline criticism for my heart’s choice, I’ll make no apologies to other people for it.


17 responses to this post.

  1. You are so right. Dern cats definately have conditions they impose on me!


  2. That’s the difference between you and the average person, I guess: you respect your cats. Most people think of them as helpless little babies, not domestic animals who evolved from African wild cats. My take on it is that there really isn’t evidence of “unconditional love”, whatever that even means. Understanding cats on their own level is what we should be doing. It doesn’t help that psychology has done a crappy job understanding the human-domestic animal bond. That’s why employers don’t get the importance when people say “my cat is sick”. At least Pat Shipman is advancing the science.



  3. I think you have it perfectly.

    The simpler thing to do when Tux Brat was having his blockages would have been to put him down, esp. during the long period of unemployment. It would have saved a lot of money, peed-on clothes, hatred from Tortie… but instead we took out the charge card and got him a specialist, and the peeps chipped in.

    Dogs are closer to unconditional love for their people, but as a cat person, I’ve always felt that was too easy. When a cat (or bunny) loves you, you’ve achieved something.

    We choose to live with kitties not because it is easy, but because it is hard, as JFK never would have said.


  4. I love the relationship I have with Penny — and yes, maybe because it’s unconditional both ways. But I can watch her trying to “figure out” things and how to be part of our lives (especially if there are treats to be had somewhere along the line) — and I love having her around when I’m doing things.

    PS I figured out I had the wrong RSS feed for you. So, there you go.


  5. I think human beings can dote on their pets and still be completely selfish. [Glances across the room at Baby Bro.] If you believe your animal loves you more than any human being does because your own social skills and empathy for others are poor, then you’ll spend piles of money on your dog, cat, iguana, whatever, thinking they are your one and only. That person may not always be the best caregiver for their animal, however. What he thinks is love may actually be a kind of twisted self-regard—my animal is me is my animal. But when it comes time to make hard decisions for the animal companion, the selfish person will only choose the options that benefit himself, not the animal. It doesn’t matter if the animal demonstrates pain or is struggling to breathe. That sort of owner won’t see it. They’ll keep the animal alive at any cost, because they don’t want to lose their only admirer.

    Yes, I’m a little bitter tonight. Sorry.


  6. I think I pretty much agree that thinking your animal loves you more than anyone else could is problematic.
    I’m pretty sure my guys would have rather Cordelia-like answers if asked about it.
    And certainly some people express their own care for their pets in very odd ways….
    I take it your brother’s dog is still suffering.
    Sounds as if it is being hard on pretty much everyone.


  7. Unconditional love is rare from humans. Only humans regularly dish out conditional love, meaning judgment. “If you do this, I’ll love you…” or not. They tend to confuse love with all sorts of other things. In lieu of judgment, I think animals act from basic daily survival mechanisms.

    How can we know that an animal feels “love” except by, mistakenly, comparing its expression to human expressions of love? I know that when a bunny is bonded to another bunny, it will run in circles around its beloved(!). So when Buz runs around me, I know he’s loving me in the way bunnies love one another. He won’t ever not do that.

    I do think that once an animal loves you, it will always love you in that particular way, no matter what. Like Christian the lion.

    Humans have to learn to read the affection particular to their animal companions.


    • amen.

      I think that gaining the trust of an animal (a bunny, for example) is beyond price.

      Having Her N-ness live with me – and working to gain that trust from her – is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done, and that’s not because she gives me “unconditional love.” It’s more because she now treats me as if I’m another bunny, albeit a very large, unfurry (and generally “weird”) one.

      Every act of trust is a gift – especially sweet coming from an animal who likely began her life as a mishandled “Easter bunny” and who got good at defending herself as a result.


      • Priceless is right! Earning the trust of a prey animal especially is truly a gift. We can’t expect animals to interpret human signals of affection WITHOUT the filter of bunny/kitty/dog/goat/whatever communication. So we do have to learn to communicate like them. I like that better, anyway! We have hard enough times trying to figure out other humans, God spare our animals the same!


        • it’s also – in my mind – a bit like being an explorer in space (think early Star Trek), where you meet other species and have the Prime Directive and all that.

          Just because animals and birds don’t write books or drive cars does *not* mean that they are less intelligent than us. Different – yes. More intelligent than us in some way (perhaps *many* ways) – yes.

          Last week I watched an older IMAX docu on beavers and was just floored by the way they build dams and houses. They’re as precise and careful as any human architects and contractors, which leads me to wonder if some early humans got their ideas about building shelters from beavers…. I know that can never be proved, but I think it’s plausible.

          (And the beavers make the coolest/cutest sounds throughout the movie!)


  8. Posted by aubrey on March 8, 2012 at 3:17 pm

    Animals inspire us, make us do and think things that we’d never thought we’d be capable of. I believe that animals can be devoted to us (feline independence notwithstanding) and should devotion trip into the territory that we see as love, then I’m content that it be so.


  9. I love this post!

    I have had some pretty ornery critters. But, I respect their personalities and leave them to it.
    They get cared for, talked to, petted if they will put up with it. And then they can just be themselves.
    Grumpity or not! 🙂


    • I saw a program years ago once about a parrot who was plucking out her feathers for some reason or other. Her human felt bad and thought she looked awful, the bird picked up on that, and plucked even more. Long story short, when the woman just accepted her for the way she looked, the parrot stopped plucking!


  10. This post is so beautifully written and well-said! Perfect! I’m glad I found it. xxx


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